Former Colonial Service officer in Kenya and Tristan da Cunha administrator Peter Wheeler dies aged 89

Peter Wheeler
Peter Wheeler pictured at the time of the evacuation of the islanders after the volcanic eruption in 1961.

Born on December 4, 1928 in Warwickshire, Peter James Freeman Wheeler was a keen rugby player who studied estate management at Magdalene College, Cambridge after Service with the Royal Signals who met his future wife during a rugby tour to South Africa before joining the Colonial Service in 1954.

After driving 4,000 miles from Cape Town to Kenya largely on dirt roads, he gained admiration for arriving at his first remote station with a wife, as recruits were not supposed to marry during their first two years. 

Recalling his life in Kenya, Wheeler recalled weeks on horseback in the bush for his work as a district officer in Kenya, building a road in three days with 15,000 men for a visit by Princess Margaret, and of camping in the Masai Mara with lions surrounding their tents throughout the night.

Peter Wheeler
Peter Wheeler with his wife and children in Kenya during the Fifties.

In April 1961 he arrived on Tristan da Cunha, British outpost in the South Atlantic ocean, after a week-long boat trip to take up his post as British administrator were he oversaw the replacement of British pounds and shillings with the South African rand.

But it was in October 1961, when a volcano erupted on Tristan da Cunha, and he organised the evacuation of the island’s entire population.

With rocks falling and cracks began appearing on October 10, he calmly and decisively instructed the community of 264 people to leave their houses and spend a night in the potato patches before alerting UK officials with HMS Leopard soon dispatched from Simon’s Town, about 1,750 miles away.

The next day, Wheeler organised the islanders’ evacuation by longboat from a village beach to awaiting fishing vessels and then to nearby Nightingale Island, which is uninhabited. By a stroke of luck the Tjisadane, a Dutch passenger liner, was passing through the area and he oversaw the transfer of the community to the ship.

He then returned to Tristan da Cunha where he secured valuables and broke into an office safe with a sledgehammer to salvage £5,000 as well as Foreign & Commonwealth Office cyphers. After organising the recovery of islanders’ possessions from their homes, he gave orders that their cattle, sheep and donkeys should not be shot but left in good pasture, explaining that “Nature and natural hazards will keep a balance.”

Wheeler rejoined the Colonial Service in Kenya before joining packaging company Metal Box in India where he managed the Calcutta office. 

Retiring to his Woodgreen home in the New Forest in 1982, he regularly attended gatherings of the Tristan da Cunha Association and on the 50th anniversary of the eruption he sent a message to the islanders: “God be with you and the island too.”

He died on May 6, 2018 aged 89 and is survived by his wife and three children; Simon, who is retired; Anthony, an IT specialist; and Caroline, a GP.

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